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Facing the finish line
Once the front-runner, John Kerry battles to keep his presidential bid alive

MILFORD, NH — If John Kerry is to have any hope of reviving his moribund presidential campaign, then he’s got to start with voters like Nancy Jackson-Reno.

Jackson-Reno, who lives in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, had driven through cold drizzle to the Harley Sanford VFW Post to hear Kerry address about 100 people at a lunchtime chili feed last Friday. For about 40 minutes the Massachusetts senator ran through his stump speech and took questions, mustering as much passion as his phlegmatic persona would allow.

There was veiled criticism of Democratic front-runner Howard Dean ("Don’t go there just to send a message, go there to send America a president") and explicit criticism of George W. Bush ("He rushed to war; he broke faith with the American people"). There was a breathtaking sweep of issues, from the environment to national security, from tax reform to gun control. And there was the assurance that — the polls be damned — it’s not too late for John Forbes Kerry.

"This campaign is on fire, and it’s starting to move," Kerry asserted.

So what did Jackson-Reno think? "Very impressive. I think he’s incredibly qualified. Brilliant," she told me.

And what about Dean? "I have friends and family in Vermont, and they just tell me to be very cautious," she replied.

So will she vote for Kerry in the New Hampshire primary on January 27? Her response: "I really like Clark" — a reference to Retired General Wesley Clark, whom she and her sister had seen that morning.

Such are the realities of the nearly impossible position in which John Kerry finds himself these days. A year ago at this time Kerry was the prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire, with Dean tagged as nothing more than 2004’s boutique candidate, à la Bruce Babbitt or Jerry Brown. Now Dean has built up such a huge lead in the New Hampshire polls that Kerry is spending most of his time in Iowa, hoping that a strong showing in the January 19 caucuses there will persuade New Hampshire Democrats to give him another look in their first-in-the-nation primary.

Yet the two-candidate race with Dean that Kerry so desperately wants and needs seems unlikely to materialize. Clark — Nancy Jackson-Reno’s preferred candidate of the moment — is in a virtual tie with Kerry for second place in New Hampshire. At the very least, Kerry faces the prospect of a three-man contest. And Joe Lieberman, who’s gone so far as to rent an apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire, for the duration of the campaign, could be a factor as well. Thus it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Kerry could come in third or even fourth in a state where anything other than first or a very close second would almost certainly spell the end of his campaign.

Nationally, it’s no better. A Newsweek poll conducted in mid December showed Kerry coming in fifth, behind — try wrapping your mind around this — Al Sharpton. A new Time/CNN poll is somewhat more reassuring: Kerry is running second to Dean nationally, up from fourth place in November. But Dean’s lead over Kerry is a substantial 22 percent to 10 percent, and Lieberman, Clark, and Dick Gephardt are bunched right up behind Kerry.

The money’s not rolling in like it used to, either. In the fourth quarter of 2003, Dean raised a reported $14.1 million. Clark reported raising somewhere between $10 million and $12 million, making him competitive. No one else — including Kerry — came close. Kerry, who recently sank about $7 million in personal funds into his campaign, reported raising somewhere between $2 million and $4 million during the last three months of 2003.

Unfortunately for Kerry, his campaign imploded just as Dean’s sheen started to fade a bit. The December 9 endorsement of Dean by Al Gore appears to have marked a high point for the insurgent-turned-favorite. Since then, Dean’s poll numbers have softened slightly. He’s also come under increasing attack for refusing to release all of his records from his years as Vermont’s governor, for dubious statements about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, for whining about attacks by his opponents, and for questions about his fiery temperament.

WHO IS THE REAL DEAN? asks Time magazine on its cover this week. Newsweek’s cover offers a more pointed DOUBTS ABOUT DEAN.

The problem for Kerry, though, is that it may be too late for him to take advantage of this opportunity. To be sure, there is something perverse about the notion of writing off a candidate as experienced and accomplished as Kerry before the first vote has even been cast. "The race has just begun. I don’t know — and I love you all dearly — you guys in the media get so mesmerized by the polls," says former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, and who is supporting Kerry in the 2004 contest. Dukakis notes that, in late 1987, the leader in the Democratic race was Gary Hart, who had re-entered the campaign after briefly dropping out over having been caught aboard the good ship Monkey Business with a woman other than his wife on his lap. Dukakis finished third in the Iowa caucuses — and first in New Hampshire, propelling him to victory in the later primaries that spring.

So will Howard Dean turn out to be the Gary Hart — and Kerry the Dukakis — of 2004? "John has always been a slow starter and a strong finisher. We’ll see," says Dukakis, who is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University. "We’ll only know what’s going on after we’ve had a series of primaries and things begin to sort themselves out. That’s one grizzled veteran’s take on all this."

As for Kerry, Dukakis says, "He’s got to work on the ground. As far as I can tell, he’s got good field operations in the first two states. I think he’s starting to hit his stride now. And you just go. You just work your tail off. If you can make it through those early primaries, and you’re still on your feet, things change dramatically."

But New Hampshire–based radio talk-show host Deborah "Arnie" Arnesen, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, believes it’s already too late for Kerry — and that Dean has won the hearts and minds of party activists. "The difference is passion," says Arnesen, who is not aligned with any candidate after having supported Bob Graham early on. Of Kerry, she says, "There is nobody who is ready to go to the mat for him. There is no excitement, and I like him. He is a competent guy. He was a risk-taker in Vietnam, and then he went down to Washington and it sucked out all the risk. He does the Washington dance, and the Washington dance doesn’t work with George Bush, because Bush is a bull in a china closet."

Arnesen sees Kerry’s alliance with former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen — who introduced Kerry at the Harley Sanford Post — as emblematic. Though Shaheen’s political organization could well benefit Kerry on primary day, Arnesen says Shaheen is as cautious as Kerry — the last thing he needs right now. "Jeanne Shaheen is the most risk-averse person on the planet," Arnesen says.

So how bad is it for Kerry? Arnesen lists the alternatives for New Hampshire Democrats who are uncomfortable with Dean. For those who think he’s too inexperienced in foreign policy, there’s Clark. For those who think he’s too liberal, there are Lieberman and Gephardt. And for those who think he’s too conservative, there is Dennis Kucinich.

"Kerry isn’t even in the choice pattern," Arnesen says. "It’s so sad."

KERRY’S SHORTCOMINGS as a candidate — that is to say, as a political performer — are more obvious in retrospect than they were when the only question in the minds of most pundits was whom he would pick as a running mate.

At 60, Kerry is very much a creature of the Senate, in which he has served since 1985. His much-remarked-upon aloofness is the mark of a reserved and formal man, running for president in an era that demands intimacy from its political leaders. He speaks in monotonous cadences of legislation, subcommittees, and hearings, sprinkled with words like "extraordinary" and "remarkable." That’s why, when he tried to pander to what he supposed was a young, hip audience by dropping an F-bomb on Rolling Stone, it came across as more ludicrous than offensive. There have been moments of media silliness too — snippiness over the discovery that he’s part Jewish and what that allegedly says about his lack of self-awareness, stupid potshots over the cost of his haircuts and his preference for Swiss cheese in his hoagies.

But such things are not why Kerry is on the brink of elimination today. Rather, it is because of a supreme irony: he is not sufficiently anti-war. John Kerry — a Vietnam War hero who later helped found Vietnam Veterans Against the War; who investigated the Reagan administration’s illegal war in Central America during the 1980s; and who opposed the first Gulf War, which took place in 1991 — voted in favor of a resolution in the fall of 2002 giving George W. Bush the authority to wage war against Iraq. And he has been utterly unable to explain his position to anyone’s satisfaction.

By contrast, Howard Dean staked out a clear anti-war position right from the beginning. Okay, maybe not quite so clear; Kerry himself has pointed out that Dean at one time said he would support a resolution giving Bush only slightly less authority than the one Kerry voted for. But Dean, as a governor, did not actually have to cast a vote; Kerry did. That may be unfair, but it’s why governors get elected president and senators don’t.

Kerry’s vote looked smart last spring, when American troops were rolling into Iraq and Saddam’s statue was being pulled down in Baghdad’s Shiite ghetto. But then spring turned to summer, the Q-word (as in "quagmire") was heard, and Saddam’s alleged cache of deadly weapons was nowhere to be found.

Dean, on the strength of his anti-war rhetoric and his unwavering critique of the Bush White House, established himself first as the Democrats’ favorite outsider, then as an Internet fundraising phenomenon, and, finally, as the front-runner.

And Kerry floundered. In a mess entirely of his own making, he found himself unable to explain his vote on the war resolution, mainly because he kept changing his mind as to why he had voted for it in the first place. His worst moment came in December. Just before Saddam’s capture, he said that he was as anti-war as Dean, and pointed to Dean’s support of a similar resolution. Then, after the capture, Kerry did a 180 and insisted that his own pro-war vote was proof that he, unlike Dean, understood the country’s national-security needs. Writing in Slate, William Saletan ran two diametrically opposed Kerry quotes together under the McCarthy-era headline SENATOR, HAVE YOU NO SHAME?

This past Sunday, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Kerry was still struggling to explain himself. Host Bob Schieffer pointed out that just before Saddam was captured, Kerry told Rolling Stone, "If I were president, we would not be in Iraq today. We would not be at war." Yet right after the capture, Kerry said, "I am here to say, holding Saddam accountable was important. I’m here to say that doing nothing would have been the most dangerous path of all." Pressed by Schieffer, Kerry pleaded, "What I was talking about, Bob, was how you go to war." And: "I believe there was an intelligent way to do it." By failing to build a genuine coalition, Kerry lectured Schieffer, Bush "has overextended the armed forces of the United States."

A nuanced response to a complex issue? Yes. A craven attempt to have it both ways? Well, uh, that too.

James Pindell, managing editor of PoliticsNH.com, says that, last summer, he took to timing Kerry’s answer whenever he was asked about his vote on the Iraq-war resolution. Invariably, he says, it was seven to nine minutes long. "John Kerry’s answer is still seven minutes long," Pindell said in an interview last month. "So message-wise, he’s got an issue there. They just don’t know what to make of a guy who has these several positions."

Mindful of the Pindell test, I timed Kerry at the Harley Sanford Post last Friday when he was asked "what was on your mind" when he voted in favor of the Iraq-war resolution. He’s now got it down to two and a half minutes, and he closes with an effective punch line, telling people that if they think he would have handled the situation in Iraq the same way Bush has, "don’t vote for me."

It lacks the clarity of Dean’s no-war message, allowing as it does for the possibility of war had a genuine coalition been built, and had Saddam continued to defy United Nations weapons inspectors. But it is a reasonably effective response to the most important question of the Democratic campaign. Would it have stopped Dean’s rise if Kerry could have articulated it last summer? Will it be enough to get him back into the race now?

Not likely. As Joshua Micah Marshall recently observed on his weblog, Talkingpointsmemo.com, Kerry’s situation in New Hampshire is particularly acute because of the large lead he once held. Marshall wrote that "it’s really hard for me to see how you can recover the support of voters that you once had in New Hampshire, and then lost."

That’s not to say it can’t happen. But if it does, it would rank as one of the great comebacks in political history.

In other words, Kerry needs a miracle. And there are no signs that one is on the horizon.

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Issue Date: January 9 - 15, 2004
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